The last glass of champagne

Issue 2/2005 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Anton Chekhov, at Yalta on the Black Sea to treat his tuberculosis, travels to Moscow in spring to meet his wife Olga, who is working as an actress in Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre. They have long had to maintain their relationship by letter. Now the doctors believe the patient must be sent to Germany for treatment at a spa. He himself does not want to acknowledge his condition, although as a doctor he cannot be unaware of the signs of approaching death. Olga accompanies him with mixed feelings, for she does not wish to interrupt her career.

Raine Mäkinen (born 1938) has been a rather unfamiliar name in literary circles. His novel Kuuma syksy (‘Hot autumn’) was selected as the best first Finnish-language novel of the year 1974, and in his long, rather than productive, career as a writer he published a few more novels before retiring from his position as chemist and industrial hygienist. Voin ja paljon paremmin (‘I already feel much better’, Loki, 2004), a novel about Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, is the work of a mature writer: biographical facts, understanding of human nature and imagination are well balanced. Mäkinen’s novel seems to have grown out of a virtually lifelong admiration and love for Chekhov. He does not try to write about Chekhov using Chekhov’s own style, of course – but his text breathes a simplicity, naturalness and purity impossible to achieve without hard work and humility. He does not try for pretty words, but he writes beautiful text.

So, in 1904, Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper-Chekhova travel by train from Moscow to the Black Forest, to the Badenweiler Spa, The writer will return from there to his homeland in a refrig­erator car intended for transporting oysters.

Mäkinen structures his novel around a number of narrators, among them the sometimes raving, sometimes diabolically keen-sighted Chekhov; his actress wife, who feels guilty about forsaking her artist’s role; the Moscow journalist Illos, who is stalking the story of the great writer’s death; and the spa’s leading doctor, Dr Schwörer. Brimming with vitality and egotism, Schwörer seems a caricature of the German head of family, Traditional sauerkraut and pig knuckles are not for him, though; he has a craving for French delicacies – he is a social climber. But the doctor is really too roundly developed for a caricature. Schwörer sees in German-born Knipper a potential conquest and in Chekhov a competitor. Moreover, the German doctor and the Russian doctor have differing views of the Russo-Japanese War, where the patriotic Chekhov plans to enlist as a front-line doctor. Once he feels better.

Death arrives on the scene in the form of the American writer Stephen Crane – or so I interpret Mäkinen’s most ingenious construction. In real life, Crane had died of pneumonia in Badenweiler four years earlier – but he had himself predicted he would die in 1904, and Mäkinen lets imagination correct ‘history’s arithmetic error’. Chekhov is unlikely to have known of Crane or his works, but he may have heard of the death of his American colleague at the same spa. In the novel the two men are linked by their gift of story-telling and their longing for faraway places, and as a doctor, Chekhov is interested in the dark blotches on ‘Mister Krein’s’ skin.

It would have been too easy a solution for Mäkinen to reduce Crane to a mere deathbed hallucination – critics might point to Chekhov’s philosophical short story about hallucination, ‘The Black Monk’. Many others also encounter Crane and his concerned wife – or widow! – Cora at Badenweiler. But when Chekhov meets death, Crane is waiting at the station; together they watch as the writer’s coffin is loaded into the refrigerator car.

Tragic life stories generally end on a summarising surge of cathartic emotion. In a way, Mäkinen’s novel does, too. But as the two writer ghosts sitting at the station gradually fade into nothingness, the legend-building already begins. A fly buzzing about the death room is sufficient: Olga Knipper’s sense of the theatrical immediately transforms it into a black butterfly.

Perhaps Mäkinen is not writing about death after all, but rather about the inescapable continuity of life.

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